Hushpuppy, a slow-to-smile 6-year-old girl played by Quvenzhané Wallis, lives in the Bathtub, a proudly independent pocket of Louisiana where a handful of residents exist on what nature and the scraps of civilization provide. Some of the Bathtub’s residents, like Wallis and her troubled, ailing father (Dwight Henry), dwell in trailers mounted above ground to fight the rising tides, and eat food culled from the animals that live alongside them, or pulled from the ocean, or taken from a seemingly endless supply of canned goods, most of which look aged and beaten, and some of which were never intended for human consumption in the first place. Wallis doesn’t share a home with Henry, but she lives nearby in a dilapidated space she shares with the ghost of her mother, or a voice she imagines to be her ghost. Sometimes Henry tosses a whole chicken on the grill—after first pulling it from an iceless cooler—and shares it with her. Other times, he’s not around at all. Wallis gets by anyway. The people of the Bathtub are good at getting by.
At school, she learns about the aurochs: unpitying, prehistoric beasts now awakened to walk the Earth again. At night she dreams of horned, woolly animals making their way across the land, awakened from frozen slumber by melting ice caps and destroying whatever crosses their path. She might be letting her imagination run wild. Or she might have a gift for seeing what others can’t: The little bit of rundown world her people call their own may soon face a new threat to its existence.
Beasts Of The Southern Wild never fully chooses between those options, but it isn’t really in the question-answering business. The remarkable, lyrical feature debut of Benh Zeitlin—a New York filmmaker with a background in animation who relocated to Louisiana in advance of making the film—Beasts moves with a dreamlike pulse, and is never better than when it doesn’t feel the need to move much at all. The opening scenes present an idealized idea of life amid those with nothing to lose. In a voiceover made all the more poetic by Wallis’ unpracticed delivery—the first of several elements that bring Terrence Malick to mind—Wallis contrasts life in the Bathtub to life behind the levee, where folks have means but little time for the Bathtub’s seemingly nightly celebrations, where alcohol flows freely and fireworks light up the sky. It’s a joyous existence, but also a perilous one. A strong storm could wipe them out. Those that live there do so at their own peril, but consider it worth the risk. Better to live free in the riches of nature than surrounded by prosperity and plenty that’s always out of reach.
As the film progresses, the peril starts to overtake the joyousness, sending Wallis, her father, and others on an episodic journey that takes them to what’s left of civilization—and maybe back home again. Zeitlin, who co-wrote the film with Lucy Alibar from her play, offers only vague allusions to a catastrophe that’s reshaped the world, leaving viewers as much in the dark as Wallis as to what’s happened, and what might happen next. But the state of the Bathtub bears a familiar look of not-so-benign neglect. No one mentions Katrina, but the hurricane and other recent disasters loom over Beasts. Zeitlin transforms the aftermath of the storm into a fantasy of neighborly barbarism, as if all those neglected in Katrina’s wake decided to split off from a nation that had no interest in their well-being. They’ve lapsed into what’s, by all appearances, an agreeable state of anarchy, albeit one in danger of being washed away.
Zeitlin stays close to the ground, using handheld imagery to capture a world reverting to nature while emphasizing the humanity of those who call it home. Wallis is resourceful and imaginative beyond her years, and the film gives her a story of survival, but also one of self-assertion, as she puzzles out her place in a cosmos that doesn’t necessarily have her best interests in mind. As her father first grows ill, then perhaps mad, she’s forced to fend for herself on a journey that takes her from her flooded-out home to the safety and oppression of a rescue center to a bayou brothel where lost children and lonely women pair off for an evening of dancing. The lattermost is one of the film’s loveliest, most haunting scenes, and it taps into a theme Beasts explores from start to finish: the ways people find happiness in a world in where comfort is in short supply.
Wallis’ unforced performance anchors Zeitlin’s striking visuals and gift for atmosphere. She can’t give a sense of narrative urgency to a film content to meander from incident to incident—and which can grow confusing when it does try to tell a story—but her character’s struggle to find stability and meaning keeps it from floating off into airy abstraction. It’s a remarkable debut performance in the midst of a stunning debut film, a work of cinematic poetry that benefits from feeling as scraped-together and in danger of falling apart as the world it portrays. That world is a made-up place with real-life roots that Zeitlin uses as a center, demanding viewers pay attention to its seldom-seen beauty, and to a way of life that might otherwise be pulled out of memory by the uncaring tides.